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A really easy Christmas reading promotion idea

15 Dec

Noisy Librarians

Just a really quick and simple blog post today – here’s an idea for an easy Christmas themed library event, for your school library: Surprise Reads.

All you need is some wrapping paper, cellotape, and string. Oh, and library books.

Do you library books have barcodes? If so, you can hopefully alternatively type a number in to your system instead of scanning the barcode, because you need this too.

All you need is a stack of tags (made from bits of the wrapping paper or card, hole punch them and use string to attach), a stack of books, a stack of wrapping paper.

For each book, write its barcode on the tag, and a short description or hint at what kind of person might enjoy this book. For example

“This book would be perfect for…

…Girls in S1-2, who like horses

…Boys who enjoy football stories

…fans of Goosebumps stories

…anyone who enjoys fantasy genre books”


“Borrow this book because…

…it’s fun and festive

…it’s quirky and a bit different

…it will make you giggle”


Then wrap up the book and make a pile of them (under the tree, if you have one) so pupils can have a hunt through for something that sounds just right for them. They have to take the book away/back to class before opening it though!

You’re still loaning as normal, so this all counts towards your loan stats. I’ve run it year after year and not had problems with anyone not understanding they are still a library loan, but you might want to make a simple sign to explain.

Also, a really fun thing to do is to get pupils to label and wrap up books for others – cut out a stack of squares of wrapping paper, get a cellotape dispenser or you will have World War Cellotape, and I usually print the “This book would be perfect for…” bit on the tags in advance. And the great thing is everyone enjoys doing this even they are personally reluctant to borrow books, everyone has an opinion about what someone else would like!

That’s all 🙂 Happy Christmas from the Noisy Librarians!


School library pupil helpers & volunteers

2 Dec

Volunteering in libraries has become a contentious issue in the profession, especially since many areas in England try to replace professionally staffed public libraries with co-called “community libraries” staffed by volunteers.

As per usual I approach this from a school library perspective, and a Scottish one at that. Bear in mind at least until recently (I don’t know what the current picture is) the vast majority of school libraries in Scotland were professionally staffed. I was just reading Lauren Smith’s blog about volunteering  which makes some excellent points. My perspective on volunteers is very similar. As a person who took on volunteers I have a few things to add.

As a school librarian, pupil volunteers were an absolute godsend. I would highly recommend taking on pupil volunteers. Running lunchtime opening is just a million times calmer and fun with help. I had volunteers from S2 (2nd year of Secondary school) to S6, and they helped with item issues and returns, shelving, making book displays. They were my “go-to” instant focus group for ideas I had for the library. I found the School Library Association ‘Pupil Librarian Toolkit’ handy (it is on their website but accessible to members only – But I do significantly diverge from the approach it recommends. Essentially, the SLA toolkit recommends advertising the role, looking for pupils with various skills and qualities, interviews etc.

My perspective is that having pupil volunteers is not principally for MY benefit, as a school librarian, it is for the PUPILS benefit. So, I actually look for who would benefit from the experience. Yes, they have to show an interest, but beyond that, what is the function of a school if not to furnish pupils with skills and experience? Being a pupil volunteer is a great way to gain confidence speaking to people, working in a team, patience, and of getting some practical experience in a real, working library at the same time.

Bearing this in mind, when I was a school librarian, I ran a training scheme for my library volunteers. This was outside of library opening time & meant everyone could get together as a team. Using the SLA pupil toolkit, I would draft a job description, and we would look at it together and modify it until me and the volunteers were happy with it. We would then do a little skills audit, so I had a good picture of which parts volunteers had confidence in and where training was needed. We might do some teambuilding games or some enquiry roleplaying. Sometimes I had things I needed to make them aware of, such as privacy issues with people’s book loans, so we even did a smidge of library ethics. It depended completely on what the volunteers needed to learn. Other weeks, we would do activities like identifying the transferable skills they were gaining from volunteering. I felt it was important for the volunteers to be aware of these skills and qualities, so that they could make the most of them when applying for jobs or college later. We also participated in the Millennium Volunteer Award scheme, so their hours could count towards a certificate. The SLA also sent me some beautifully smart thank you letters for the pupils to keep. In return, I also felt very protective of my volunteers, for example, I expected pupils to be polite and respectful to my volunteers, and anything less was not acceptable! On the rare occasion where a volunteer gets hassled, be there to back them up, make sure they know you are absolutely there for them. After all, they are giving up their lunchtime to help. They deserve to feel safe and valued, just as they deserve training for the skills they need for the job.

I think pupil volunteers in school libraries are important. I think school libraries are in a great position to give some youngsters work experience and training. Being a library volunteer can give a young person a chance to shine, a chance to experience something different, a different way to be learning, to be experiencing success, to contribute to the school community. I mention this because I wonder if my experience could inform the debate on volunteers in other library sectors. I have done volunteering in the past, as a student I did various things, and that experience was very valuable to me. Right now, I would not do volunteer library work, I think it would be counter-productive and only encourage a ‘race to the bottom’ for salaries and enough library posts have been lost already. Rather than seeing volunteers as an opportunity to get a quasi-professional on the (very!) cheap, we should ask ourselves, how can we make volunteering of value to volunteers? Who would benefit from volunteering experience?

My Library Induction Recipe

17 Nov

This is my own tried and tested recipe for school library inductions, which should leave time for borrowing & work for all ability levels. I should point out I am a very kinaesthetic learner and I think you can tell I have a bias towards that kind of task! These sessions are fun and adaptable too, with lots of room for interaction with pupils, which helps it not become too repetitive for the librarian delivering it too. So I am not saying these induction ideas are perfect, but I hope they might inspire a few readers.

Part One – You will need:

1 enthusiastic librarian

20-or-so 11 year-olds

1 Carel Press Reading Game (& folded photocopies of map)

1 (potentially sceptical) teacher


15 minutes prep to layout zone signs and books

1 full lesson time


Introduce yourself first, then I always ask the teacher to shut her/his eyes while I ask the class to put up their hands if they love reading / reading is ok / hate reading. I always say it is OK to not like reading, everyone has different hobbies and interests, I might like swimming but hate rock climbing, for example, however they are all at school to learn and they will need reading skills for that. And then tell them that the good news is that my job is to get them all enjoying reading & to find the right thing for each person, so even if they hate reading just now, it is my job to change that and when you really enjoy reading something it won’t be a chore any more. Then I’ll say something about how many different kinds of books there are in the library & there should be something to suit everyone and we are playing this game so they can get a good look at what the library has. (There might be time here for more discussion e.g. of authors they enjoyed at primary school, play it by ear!)

Then we play the Carel Press Reading Game. I find this works really well when pupils are set by ability already, because all of the books can be selected for reader level & appeal. About 4/5 books per zone is plenty. (P.S. I do the photocopying and folding of worksheets during school vacation, for the whole year in advance). I like to mix up the categories (the game comes with extras and bits you can swap), so that ‘Fact’ becomes a zone and I would definitely include Sport and Graffix too.

I prefer not to give a spiel about genres, just give instructions for the game clearly, but then let discussions evolve over the course of the game. For example, I deliberately wait for someone to ask if they can borrow these books (I’m devious like that!), and then make that announcement to the whole class, “someone asked a good question here, absolutely, you can borrow one of these books, just remember which one and there will be time at the end to go back for it” – somehow generates more excitement that way. Also, it is good to have multiples and/or alternatives to hand in case 2 people want the same thing. Other points for discussion – what do they think of ‘fact’ being a zone? Is ‘fact’ a genre or is it something else? Could a book be put in 2 different zones? Which zone do they like best? Which one are they looking forward to? Teachers can be a bit surprised at first at the slightly chaotic or rowdy nature of the game, but as they start to see their pupils get enthused they start to get it.

Always try to leave 10-15 minutes at the end for borrowing time. It doesn’t matter too much if your class doesn’t get around the whole room; time for converting interest into loans is more valuable. Also, being in groups helps stagger borrowing time at the end of the reading game. Get the teacher to help, once you’re desk-bound, they can tell one group at a time to get the books they want and bring them to the library desk.

(I have ran an adapted version of the game, still using the exact same kit, but where all the books were “classics”, for a specific class project a teacher wanted support with & that was really good fun too)


Part Two – You will need:

1 enthusiastic librarian

20-or-so 11 year-olds

1 Pirate map & question sheets

1 (hopefully less sceptical) teacher


15 minutes prep to shelve the relevant books & print/cut out question sheets

1 full lesson time

Part Two

This is the ‘Pirate treasure hunt’, inspired by Eva Baillie (now Librarian at Glasgow’s Goethe Institut) who ran something very similar in her school library! Preferably wait a couple of weeks after part one before running this session, so the class can return last time’s books at the same time. I would start with asking someone to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Then maybe a bit of practice for how fiction is organised (alphabetically by surname, so Roald Dahl would be under…D…ask a few others). Then I do a really simple explanation of how to find non-fiction books. My preferred description is that it is a bit like a supermarket, so similar things are next to each other, e.g. the vegetables are right by the fruit…etc, (and suggest keep an eye out for any parts of the library they might want to come back to, e.g. the car books, football books, etc) but then sometimes you can’t find something so then you can either ask me or search the catalogue and get a number (Dewey number) and then follow the number order to find the book.

This time you will probably need 2 teams, and within each team a number of pairs or threes. Each pair gets a small question sheet. These will need to be adapted to your library! Here are my most recent ones:


Each pair has to find one book, and answer one question on it. Not all the tasks mean using the catalogue computer (if they do you will have a long queue…). It is very important that you say that running or shouting will disqualify your whole team! Stagger when everyone starts – Task 1s to go first, once they have got underway, Task 2 can start etc., eventually everyone will be looking at once but staggering the start makes everything calmer! Also, choose a spread of books so not everyone is looking on the same exact shelf etc. While they are looking, relax a bit 😉 don’t give in to temptation to help straight away! Have a sit down, let them come to you, and even when you know they have the wrong book, look at it with them, explain where they went wrong, e.g. ‘I see you found a book with the right number, but what is its title? And what is the title you’re looking for?) Once a pair has found its book AND answered the question, you can give them a piece of treasure map to take back for their team. My treasure maps are laminated coloured card, cut into jigsaw type pieces, with an “X marks the spot” map on one side and on the other side, either a silly maritime poem or pirate joke. When all the pieces are put together the group can then read the poem or joke. A few stragglers may need some help at the end! Maybe send one of their teammates back to help them. At the end you can go over any lessons that came up from the game e.g. the pair who brought a book with the right number but wrong title, remember there might be more than one book with the same number & that will mean they are about the same topic.

The map & what goes on the back can be adapted or made more elaborate…maybe you can find some maritime riddle for them to solve, or hide a code. You could also give prizes or perhaps instructions for making pirate hats out of newspaper and the winning team get to wear pirate hats for the day! It depends how much time/energy you have! Mostly, I just give the ‘prize’ that the first group goes to borrow more books first!! Again, this allows you to stagger the kids going to look for books.

Yes it means you have to have a tidy up, and you have to shelve the same books over and over, but I like that it is very ‘sneaky learning’, you are covering the catalogue and the Dewey decimal system in a pretty crafty way. Also, again for the reluctant readers, the game is fun, and you really want to build some positive library experiences like this for these youngsters. And it gets them out and browsing the shelves, which I think is very important. Pupils can get a bit fixated on the library catalogue, I want them to feel happy and confident just looking around too. I do tend to keep this pile of books aside and reuse them, rather than lending them as with the reading game, it just means I can do a quicker turnaround for the next class. But if someone is very keen, it is no huge job to slightly adapt the question sheet for the next class.

Shh, don’t attract attention!

15 Sep

I am discovering that writing about censorship is really hard. How to talk about…what we don’t talk about? The whole point of this blog is to make more noise about what librarians do, to make the argument for an undervalued profession. Not just making the case to others, but for fellow professionals. Where is our collective voice? Teachers or nurses don’t seem to have a problem kicking up a fuss when some new policy or curriculum etc is detrimental to their work. And I still think overall, we need to be doing this.

However, I have been thinking about censorship in school libraries, after reading about authors of YA novels being asked to ‘straighten’ gay characters by literary agents, and joining in the subsequent #YesGayYA debate on twitter. A year ago, I blogged about searching for and providing LGBT themed teen fiction. No wonder it is hard to find this material, if it never even makes it to a publisher!

In my experience, school libraries can cater for the 11-16 age group better than any public library service. The impression I have is that a good school library has more YA fiction in stock than a branch public library. The teen fiction section in a public library is a bit of a niche, whereas it is the bread and butter of school libraries. Plus, public libraries and also bookshops seem to underestimate the age range materials will appeal to which is why I dislike age-banding on books so much. Maybe they work fine for kids who frequent book shops and read a lot, for the school population as a whole, absolutely way off. Way, way off!

Anyway, I digress! The point is, a lot of people have something to say about what is or isn’t suitable for an 11 year-old. People are a lot more reluctant to tell a 16, 17 or 18 year old what they can or can’t read. School libraries straddle that age gap. I’ve been fortunate to not face many challenges to materials but absolutely it happens all the time, and not just in Bible Belt America. We just don’t talk about it very much and tend to deal with issues one book or one incident at a time. I think the (unspoken) rationale might be that to draw attention to library services too much might invite more intrusion.

There have been times when I have dithered over whether or not to withdraw or stock a book and part of that is being aware of being against censorship. Sometimes it is even an self-censorship to avoid controversy. Whoever sanctioned the title and cover (someone sticking up two fingers) for Bali Rai’s ‘Politics – Cutting Through the Crap’ should have spared a thought for school librarians! Yes they want that book to appeal to teenagers, and I’m pretty sure it would, and what with libraries being a cornerstone of democracy nothing would make me happier than getting teenagers getting informed. But could it be just a little bit less sweary on the cover? I want to get the information to the kids…I don’t want to be stopped by teachers or parents.

I suppose this is how not really talking about censorship is itself a part of our professional stance against it. I know some school librarians were quietly ignoring ‘section 28’ while it was in place, for example (Section 28 was a UK law which forbid local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality. It was repealed in 2000). To have ignored it loudly could have lead to censorship so being ‘noisy’ would have actually lead to library materials being withdrawn. The whole issue is very tricky. Maybe we should never speak of it again, forget I said anything…

…or perhaps we need to act collectively, so that we know that when an individual librarian in a school somewhere is being pressured to take a totally age-appropriate book about sex or relationships or whatever it may be, we back each other up as a profession as a whole. Which would mean CILIP or other equivalents putting some work into our professional ethics and standards. Which is a topic for another time…

Teenage fickleness, PVC and Doctor Who

22 Nov

Noisy Librarians

As we all know, trying to be cool is deeply un-cool. Anyone trying to get through to teenagers is basically navigating a minefield of deadly ‘lame’ to reach a tiny patch of solid gold ‘cool’.

You think you are doing so well and then, boom! You get some crucial vocabulary wrong (“Hey kids, I know you’re all on your ‘Spacebook’ and ‘Myface’, but check out this website about studying for exams!”) or something that was cool last week is now incredibly lame. Your credibility is in tatters!

Teenage trends come and go at a rapid pace. Library budget planning tends to work on an annual basis. For libraries in secondary schools this age group is our bread and butter, yet budgets are tight. Is it possible to keep up with the ‘latest thing’?

Last week a pupil came in after school, and headed to the same fiction section as always. When he emerged without a book I asked

“Did you not find a Doctor Who book?”

He shrugged.

“I guess I’m just not interested in reading stories about David Tennant’s Doctor any more.”

Now, I’m known around school as a bit of Doctor Who geek. I tend to find out who the fans are. It’s a show that appeals across generations. But this fickleness took me by surprise. Of course it shouldn’t have done. David Tennant isn’t on our TV screens as the Doctor any more. He’s last year, he’s ancient history! David who?!

And yet my heart sank. I don’t have money for more Doctor Who books right now. I already have quite a few, is it really fair anyway to spend more on something only a few people really enjoy? How quickly are going to go out of fashion?

The same dilemma faces us everyday. High School Musical books are still popular right now, but for how long? Is Hannah Montana still cool? I bought so many copies of the Twilight Saga books the shelves are bursting, yet when another film comes out, interest surges and I can’t keep up with demand.

Popular culture resources might burn out fast but they burn bright – for a short time they are very popular. I try to balance cost against durability. Bargains are out there – discount bookshops, sales: I spotted WHSmiths were selling Twilight for £1 so stocked up; I buy Guinness World Record books in the sales instead of when they first come out. If they are cheaper, I can buy 2 or 3. The kids have to wait slightly longer but there are more to go around.

CILIP’s ‘Start with the Child’ report is one of those resources I go back to repeatedly. It puts into words things librarians instinctively knew, but backs it up with solid research. The report talks about “youth culture” as distinct from “culture” in general. Youth culture emphasizes music, fashion, consumer goods, technology and informality; it is fun, participative, well presented and accessible (cheap!). To meet the needs of this age group, libraries need to emulate these qualities. It recognises that this is challenging, and anticipating trends is difficult

“Libraries find it more difficult to respond with credibility to popular culture but ignoring it runs the risk of alienating young people”. (Page 64, CILIP, ‘Start with the Child’, London, 2002)

So we keep on trying in all areas: library appearance, planning, accessibility (avoiding use of charges, for example).

I don’t mean to say that we should only stock biographies of Justin Bieber – I think I could lend about 200 of those right now! Libraries need be places where people can access a wide range of cultural and literary resources. I also feel that the young people are pretty relentlessly advertised to, and that their choices can sometimes be based on which brands are cool, and wanting to be associated with that brand. Of course librarians don’t judge! But I think it is good to avoid getting too caught up in hype over a ‘brand’. Otherwise are we actually doing the work of the advertising agencies? Is that really offering children and young people a real choice?

Last week I tried a variation on Carel Press’s reading game. I always run this game as part of S1 Inductions where it is great because it works for all ability groups – just swap around the books you use. Last week, I did a version with an S2 class, in which every single book was a “classic”. My condition for including books in this exercise was that they had to have an attractive cover. New editions of Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, the Jungle Book, The Lost World etc, went down pretty well.

Obviously “classic” is a debatable term, and I did include some “modern classics”. But that meant we could have a class discussion about what makes a “classic”. We talked about films or TV adaptations; we looked at the few titles which were in older editions, chatted about what difference the cover makes. Funnily enough, no one borrowed an old edition at the end. So being ‘well-presented’ really works.

Maybe sometimes I try too hard. I was helping a pupil choose a book recently, and as I took one off the shelf to show him, it made that sticky peeling sound from when books in PVC covers have been sat squished together.

“Woah, that’s a really bad sign, no one’s borrowed that book for ages!” he said.

I was indignant! This was a Young Bond book, not some dusty old thing! But I did wonder…so later I spent a spare few minutes separating books to get rid of that ‘sticky’ sound. Of course when I tested them again a few days later the sticky sound was back….so now I know I can honestly say that doesn’t mean a book hasn’t been borrowed in ages. Or does a few days or weeks mean ‘ages’ if you are 11? Perhaps it does! Maybe eventually I should swap to another kind of cover…and so the struggle continues!

Back to the Doctor Who books: I know I shouldn’t, but I donated some of my own (like I said, I’m a fan!). They haven’t been borrowed by anyone yet. Epic fail??

The Highs and Lows of School Librarianship

31 Oct
Read me and a heart shape

Read me! *

I love seeing positive coverage of school librarians in any press, be it in the news or in specialised publications. So I was delighted to read Kathryn Brack‘s article in the back of the latest CILIP Library & Information Gazette (or CILIP Bang as it gets called in my house! ‘Oi, Cathy, your CILIP Bang’s arrived!’). It has inspired me to come up with two lists – the ten highs and three lows of School Librarianship. Please feel free to reply with your own lists!

The Highs:

1) Making big projects come together

Being able to find collaborators around the school and often outside of it. For example, getting the whole school ‘DEAR’ing during the week of World Book Day (DEAR = Drop Everything and Read). Or getting a special book group up and running with outside funding.

2) Being part of a school community

Its great getting to see young people flourish and mature. Its a real slow burner, but over time you notice someone’s reading habits change or their confidence grow. Its great to play a role in that development by encouraging them to pursue their own interests and to fulfill their potential. It’s cheesy but it’s true.

3) Turning something boring into something fun instead

Its a small thing and it might seem trivial but I love finding something that really works and turns something from a drag into a talking point. Finding a satisfying way of displaying that difficult section of stock or turning ‘the Dewey Decimal Lesson’ into ‘the pirate treasure hunt’. And it isn’t just for the youngsters – boring activities and boring environments are boring for librarians too!

4) Exercising creativity

Someone asked me recently (and perhaps jealously?!) if doing displays was part of my job. I answered “I don’t see it as just doing displays, it is all part of library marketing,” which is true. It is also fun to do, if you have a creative side. Even if you personally don’t, help is at hand. I often scour the internet for inspiration for displays and also draw on other people’s creativity – have pupils help design the lettering or ask if you can display some of their artwork. A lot of kids are really good at drawing Manga style artwork – mount a display of this and tie it in to promote your Manga collection and sit back and watch issues shoot through the roof.

5) Creating memories

OK, forgive me getting really schmatlzy here but it is true! When Darren Shan came to town I found out writers are the new rock stars. The same when as some Cathy MacPhail fans got to meet the author herself at the latest Aye Write festival. It was a special moment, you could just tell.

6) Surprising people

Perhaps using technology to create online resources for and with classes. Perhaps by explaining to some kids that it is OK to judge a book by its cover (well, how else are you going to decide if you want to read it or not?). Perhaps by making the case for graphic novels, or social networking websites, or freedom of information.

7) The autonomy

It is a blessing and a curse. The ability to set short and long term goals. Being able to decide something needs doing, and then being able to actually do it. Establishing your own position within the school, and setting the tone for how the library is used. Oh the power!

8 ) The variety

Some days are jam-packed with plans for class visits, helping with internet research, teacher supports for help with library materials, stock selection, meetings, training people. Others are a lot more free-flowing. Its good to have a couple of longer term projects going on in the background and if you suddenly find yourself with the luxury of a quiet day, you can get on with one of them.

9) The wealth of resources

There really is something out there for everyone. I’ve particularly learned about resources for struggling and reluctant readers. There is so much variety for these audiences now, it really is great. You never quite know until the items get used, but when a child brings a book back saying it was great or recommending it to their friends or asking for more of the same, there is nothing better.

10) The learning curve

School librarianship has offered me great opportunities to learn and be challenged. I’ve got chartered. For that I had to sit down and teach myself some things, like about copyright. But mainly in the last 3 years I got out and did collection development, budget management, supervised a student librarian, bid for funding, ran book groups, created an information literacy programme, trained as an ICT mentor, organised author events. For sheer variety of experience, it is well worth it.

The Lows

A) Isolation

Not getting isolated is something you need to work at. You need to seek out your own support network. It was quite hard in the beginning. My own support network is a mix of school staff, other school librarians around my local authority and in other areas, and a mix of friends and contacts in this field and others. So when something comes up I usually have someone to talk to or bounce ideas off. Without that, the job would be very tough indeed.

B) The prejudice factor

A senior librarian told me early on that 1/3 school staff will love you, 1/3 can be convinced if you do a good job, and 1/3 won’t ‘get it’, whatever you do. You still have to deal with those people!

C) The yucky and the mucky

Cataloguing is not my idea of fun, neither is shelving or labelling particularly. Routine, run-of-the-mill stuff that is fine unless you get a long stint of it for some reason. Some people (maybe that 1/3 from point B!) think that is all we do but thankfully it isn’t. And the mucky – I found nearly a whole chocolate biscuit inside a book last week!


* From a recent exhibition at the Design Museum London.

L-E-D-LED-L-ED by Dilight, Japan

L-E-D-LED-L-ED by Dilight, Japan

Librarians on the March

26 Oct

The banner in question

The STUC’s There is a Better Way march and rally in Edinburgh last Saturday was a great way for the Noisy Librarians to get to know some librarians from other schools and even other sectors. As we began the march, our banner attracted a few colleagues who had been primed to meet up, but we were not expecting to bump into a group of schools librarians from a whole other council, as well as a public librarian.

As we chatted, the picture because simultaneously clearer and more grim with regards to potential cuts in services across a number of local authorities. Some councils are proposing cuts to services that will inevitably have an impact on the kind of school library we can provide for pupils and teachers.

It seems to me that we are at a pivotal moment for school librarianship in particular. As we face our jobs and services with much lower expectations, we must keep in mind that it will not always be like this. We must keep a record of how our service has changed following rationalisation or reorganisation. We must ask our colleagues in the teaching profession how they feel about the changes. Somewhere along the line, the financial crisis will abate. We need to make sure we were noisy enough to ensure that investment is pointed to library services that were lacking in a period of financial restraint.

People need to remember what they have been missing, so that there is a profession to take forward into the future.